Second chances are hard to come by in hockey.
But on Wednesday, the Red Deer Rebels are in line for the rare second chance as they face off against the Brandon Wheat Kings.
The two met in the Western Hockey League Eastern Conference Final, and the Wheat Kings disposed of the Rebels in five games.
It was closer than a five-game series may seem, with one overtime game and two games punctuated with empty net goals in the dying seconds of regulation. But the Wheaties won all three of those games and put themselves in a comfortable position.
“Not too many teams get a second chance,” said Rebels forward Evan Polei. “This is a big one for us. We have to play a full 60 minutes.”
Polei has slid into a role on the wing on the Rebels’ second line. He chuckled as he called it a heavy line, which is pretty accurate. Polei leads in size at six-foot-one and 221 pounds, Adam Musil is the tallest at six-foot-three and 196 pounds and Conner Bleackley is hardly small either at six-foot-one and 196 pounds.
“Brent (Sutter, Rebels GM/head coach) has us pairing up against those top lines the other teams have,” said Polei. “It’s hard work and he’s only doing that because those lines are skilled. We’re more of a shutdown line and we just need to work hard against them all night.”
His emotional goal in the game against the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies cued the Rebels’ comeback, but Polei heaped the praise on his teammates.
“It was good timing,” said Polei. “Hagel and Bleackley worked hard down low to get that puck and I got in the right area on the ice and Bleackley made a nice pass. It’s nice to capitalize.”
Polei’s linemate Bleackley said the Wheat Kings will be desperate.
“The pressure is on Brandon with the performances they’ve put forward so far,” he said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge and we kind of owe them one.
“They sent us home for three weeks before the tournament event started and we have the opportunity to do the same thing do them.”
The unit is one Sutter has assembled off and on, but injuries have impacted the consistency of the second line.
“It’s something Brent has wanted to put together for a long time,” said Bleackley. “With us three big bodies, crashing and banging, and playing against the other team’s top lines, that’s something we can do. As long as we keep it simple, that’s when all three of us are at our best.”
With two days off between games, Sutter said he liked having the day to help some of the guys rest up and get over some bumps and bruises.
“We certainly had a lot of positives in Game 2 and now, with a win, we can move on,” said Sutter. “The games are intense.
“Things can turn the other way pretty quickly if you aren’t focused on the task at hand. We have to make sure we take care of our own business with preparation and playing well. We worked on some things we continue to get better at in practice and we’ll go from there.”
For the Wheat Kings, it truly is a do-or-die situation. The WHL Champions fell flat in their opening two games of the Memorial Cup. Head coach Kelly McCrimmon’s focus has now shifted to getting the team back to the championship form that knocked the Rebels out of the WHL playoffs.
“It’s more about how you’re playing now,” said McCrimmon. “Red Deer, I think, have played well in the tournament and our team hasn’t. We have work to do.
“We haven’t played anywhere near the best of our ability and when you’re playing against good teams that’s where you have to be.”
A darling in the WHL playoffs, centre Nolan Patrick was tied for the playoff scoring lead with teammate Jayce Hawryluk. They both had 30 points, but Patrick had 13 goals and 17 assists. Among those goals was a hat trick in Game 5 against the Rebels, precipitating the Red Deer team’s exit from the post season.
Patrick has one assist through two games at the Memorial Cup.
“We have the biggest game of our life tomorrow,” said Patrick. “It’s against a team we know and we’re excited to get it going.
“There’s an advantage when you play a playoff series against a team. You know their players and tendencies a lot more and we’re still a confident group and haven’t played anywhere near our best.”
Puck drops on the Wheat Kings vs. Rebels rematch at 6 p.m. at the Centrium.